Long Waits, Hostile Staff: Prison Mulakats Take a Toll on Family Members of Those Incarcerated

TISS researchers have documented experiences of over 120 incarcerated persons, their families and prison officials over a period spanning seven months.

Mumbai: Family members of incarcerated persons don’t have it easy. From waiting in long queues to jostling inside the crammed mulakat (visitors’) room inside the prison and a hostile prison staff, the family members have to struggle a great deal to ensure a meeting that may not last longer than a few minutes.

In a detailed study conducted across four states – Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu – the plight of prisoners’ family members has been documented in great detail. The study titled ‘Prisoners’ contact with their families: Procedures, practices and experiences’ has been conducted by Prayas, a field action project of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Prayas has documented experiences of over 120 incarcerated persons, their families and prison officials over a period spanning seven months.

The seven-month-long study, concluded just a month before India went into a lockdown in March, captures the lacunae in systems set up across states for meetings between prisoners and their families.

Since the lockdown, in almost all prisons across India, prison visits were abruptly stopped. Although the Supreme Court in March suo motu passed an exhaustive order asking state governments to make adequate arrangements to ensure prisoners are not deprived of regular visits and effective alternative measures were taken, most states faltered. Multiple petitions have since been filed across different high courts seeking the most basic right to meet or at least interact with family members. These experiences are not captured in the study.

The study, led by a large team of researchers from TISS, has been carried out in keeping with the United Nation’s Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners 1955 and the Nelson Mandela Rules 2015.

In Maharashtra, the Mumbai central prison, Byculla district prison, Thane central prison, Kalyan district prison and Yerwada central prison were chosen for the study. In Delhi, Tihar and Mandoli prisons were covered while in Haryana, the superintendent of Gurugram district prison was interviewed. In Tamil Nadu, central prisons and special women’s prisons in Puzhal, Thiruchirappali and Coimbatore were covered for the study. Project director and TISS professor Vijay Raghavan said that the team will be meeting the prison departments of the southern states. “We will be presenting the findings to the prison departments of five southern states on January 6,” Raghavan told The Wire. This meeting is done in collaboration with the Academy of Prisons and Correctional Administration, Vellore.

The findings

The mulakat jungla or the meeting space in the nine prisons inside Tihar, Delhi is a large space with the capacity to host 20-35 mulakats at a time, the report observes. This space was connected through an intercom facility and the two sides of a counter separated by a glass and iron grill. One of the prisons visited had soundproof walls that enabled privacy in conversations. In some places, however, conversations were interrupted by background noises, the researchers found.

Several visitors, especially children and those with disabilities, found it difficult to access their family members inside the prison as there were no special provisions mentioned in the prison manual. The discretionary power of the prison superintendent in such cases has more weightage. “Visitors who are physically challenged and for whom the current system is still inaccessible, need to seek special permission from the Superintendent as their needs are not recorded in the Manual,” the research states.

The district prison in Gurugram district in Haryana, on the other hand, relied upon software that was developed by one of the techie prisoners. The software, the research found, is reliable and efficient.

The mulakats, at the Gurugram prison, are arranged in alphabetical order, with specific days assigned for the mulakat of certain prisoners whose names begin with that day’s alphabet. “The software (designed by a prisoner) came into use at this stage. As soon as the visitor registered for a mulakat, the prisoner was traced through the system. At the place of his last entry, the prison staff stationed there was notified about the arrival of a visitor for the concerned prisoner. The prisoner is informed of the same and about the visitor who had come to meet,” the study finds.

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For children and those with special needs, however, there were no special arrangements made, and the jail superintendent exerted his discretion. The study found that for children, a video conferencing facility was used.

The five prisons of Maharashtra – Mumbai, Byculla, Thane, Kalyan and Yerwada – were studied for the purpose of the research. In Maharashtra prisons, undertrial prisoners are allowed a meeting per week and convicts, only once in 15 days. Besides that, letters and phone call services are allowed.

One of the women prisoners interviewed in Maharashtra says: “I, at times, feel sad that my family has to come early in the morning and wait outside for hours. They may or may not have eaten anything while starting from home. They mostly stay hungry throughout the day as they wait. Even drinking water facilities are not there at times. Despite all these troubles, their eyes fill with joy as they see me. I am happy when the staff calls out my name through the microphone saying that I have a visitor. It is time that we breathe.” The concern of going without food and water for hours, waiting outside in the scorching sun and biting cold runs common in almost all prisons covered in the study.

Several respondents complained about waiting for long hours and then being denied permission despite having registered themselves with valid IDs. The frustration and helplessness felt by visitors yearning to meet their family members in prison are palpable.

Most prison rules are not practical and are designed as per the prison officials’ requirements, seldom taking the visiting relatives’ convenience into consideration. For instance, in Maharashtra’s Kalyan District Prison, clothes can be transferred only in the first half of the day of mulakat, while at the Byculla District Prison, it was allowed at any time but only on Wednesdays. In Yerwada Central Prison, the prisoner had to write down the things he/she required from the families. If these clothes were “deemed necessary” by the jail warden or the jailor, they was allowed to be transferred from the family to the prisoner.

On the inside, the visit space in jails of Maharashtra was crammed and did not have enough space to hold a large number of visitors. “These rooms lacked ventilation and were mostly crowded with people,” the research finds. In Maharashtra, however, a unique “galabhet” initiative has been designed which allows prisoners to meet their children once every three months in person and spend quality time. This initiative, started by the former additional director general of prison, Bhushan Kumar Upadhyaya, however, it not implemented adequately. Many families, the study points out, did not know of this initiative.

Also read: Police ‘Refused to Register Complaint’, Says Family of ‘Harassed’ Prisoner Who Died By Suicide

Tamil Nadu prisons, on the other hand, have a slightly better functioning system for visitors. The prison administration has undertaken progressive measures by appointing welfare officers, psychologists and sociologists to work closely with incarcerated persons. These facilities, the study observes, helped the prisoners get in touch with their family members if they did not visit them in jail. One of the welfare officers interviewed for the study, said: “Many at times the family members took the liberty of contacting the Welfare Officer themselves to enquire about the wellbeing of the prisoner or to share about some personal arguments they may have had.” The welfare officials considered contact with family and prisoners was essential for the reformation of an individual.

The study, along with making several crucial recommendations, also acknowledges a few “good practices” across different state prisons. For example, the Delhi prisons have a pre-booking mulakat system, which the study points out is a good practice. Similarly, so is the provision to meet 10 persons at a time and prison staffs’ initiative to contact families who haven’t kept in touch with those incarcerated. Along with the unique software developed for the Gurugram prison, the report lauds their video conferencing and intercom facilities, and online money transfer system. Similarly, in Maharashtra, despite several flaws, the report says the face-to-face mulakat system (if properly implemented) is a valuable one.

Tamil Nadu is the only state which makes special provisions for foreign nationals by lodging them at one Puzhal prison. This, the study notes, is done to ensure their access to their country’s embassy is simplified.